By KIERAN FINNANE
Immediately on our left were portraits of two prominent Arrernte women, Eileen Peckham and Veronica Dobson AM. Marlene immediately raised her hand to each, “Werte!“
“They’re my family,” she told us.
Straight away it was a vivid demonstration of the way that a portrait prize is about more than artistic merit. It is about people, their presence, their relationships – including and importantly between artist and subject – and about what they (both) hold dear.
In the Western tradition portraiture has been focussed on the human face, although the torso and even whole figure can come into play (there are examples in this show). In recent years, some Aboriginal artists have challenged the tradition with representations of Country, seen as indivisible from themselves and thus portraiture, the work being about who they are. There are no such examples in this show, however, and all 29 entries were accepted as finalists.
Marlene Rubuntja talking about judging the prize, after the announcement of its winners by Arts and Culture Minister Chansey Paech. On her right is Araluen director Felicity Green.
In the gallery we each began our tour of the room. I was looking first, and if particularly drawn in, then reading about the person represented, perhaps a little about the artist. Marlene though moved to the centre. She felt strongly the gaze back to her from all these faces on the wall, the meshing of emotions coming from them and inhabiting the room.
Best she acknowledge that. So she approached each and greeted them, “Werte! G’day! Welcome!”
It was moving and illuminating.
I realised that I was doing something similar, though I was being less democratic in my affections – already noting, in judgment mode, where I was responding to a sense of presence, a transmission of energy. Life, in other words, distinct from lifelike. And the subjects being “seniors” (aged 60 years or over), there was a lot of life for artists to work with.
Little by little, we three brought our encounters with these fellow seniors back to the table, sharing our impressions, until finally three contenders for the award emerged. The basic criterion, it became clear, was this sense of presence and of course you don’t get that without artistic merit.
Artist Deepu Jose Kollannoor with his subject, Jennifer Dowling and the second-prize winning portrait, Jennifer, the quest. Deepu is a registered nurse working at Royal Darwin Hospital. His portraits seek to convey the “innate expression” of his subjects.
There is another focus for this award and that is the collective identity known as being a Territorian. That is not an identity that I feel strongly, thinking of myself more as a Central Australian. But in the room, with all these people from around the Territory and more of them from up north than from the Centre, I reflected about what they, and in particular the subjects of the three winning works, had in common.
It seems to be this: that they live in an environment, natural and social, that asks a lot of them. And they respond to these demands with generosity, commitment, determination. If that’s what being a Territorian is about, I salute that.
Veronica Dobson (right), painted by Henry Smith, is known for her outstanding dedication to Arrernte culture and language, while Jennifer Dowling, painted by Deepu Jose Kollannoor, is a retired English and Drama teacher, who volunteers her time and skills to help migrants settle into life in Darwin.
To these two – the deep joy of their generous commitments beaming out from the wall – we awarded with third and second places respectively.
John Scrutton, painted by Robyn Frances, took out the top prize. From Batchelor, John in this image is a wearing his heart literally on his t-shirt, “No fracking”. The brief biography quotes him as being particularly concerned about the impact of the process on water, as he holds dear the memory of the pristine spring on his grandparents’ property that he drank from growing up and knows there are many pristine waters in the Territory. (His grandmother was the redoubtable Woolwonga woman, Nellie ‘Shotgun’ Flynn.)
The message is an important one and one that many Territorians hold dear, including we three judges. Marlene in particular expressed herself forcefully on the subject during our conversations. It’s pleasing to think of John taking it now into Parliament House, where the portrait collection is displayed.
But the message is not what won the portrait the prize. Rather it is the achievement of artist and subject together in creating an image of profound conviction and determination. This is expressed in every fibre of John’s being, transmitted by all of Robyn’s skill with brush and paint.
She has John fill the frame – this man is not for moving! She has eschewed any props or suggestions of a setting (which at times can be very effective in a portrait, like the milk crate in Nina Young’s portrait of Mary Napangati). She has invested everything in John’s face and bearing. His slightly downward gaze, the stern set of his mouth, the way his shoulders are thrust back, pushing his chest forward, all concentrate energy towards his message. It is a very accomplished and insightful portrait and for this it thoroughly deserves its $7000 award and acquisition for the permanent Territory collection.
The show is at Araluen right through the summer. The People’s Choice winner will be announced at the opening of next year’s show.
Minister Paech, Felicity Green, Kieran Finnane and Marlene Rubuntja with the winning work. (Unfortunately Chips Mackinolty could not be with us for the announcement.)
Last updated 8 December 2020, 1.21pm.